Jobless finding more competition

Unemployed Las Vegans Steve Fose and Gilberto Torres aren’t asking for much.

Fose wants a security-guard job that would earn him perhaps $11 an hour. Torres seeks a warehouse job that might bring in $10 an hour. Both have sought work since fall, with nary a nibble from any prospective employer.

The tough times besetting workers at the lower end of the pay scale, where jobs in a service-based economy often proliferate, show just how difficult finding employment has become for increasing numbers of Nevadans. The state’s unemployment rate reached its highest level in a generation in December, and experts say they don’t expect the hiring outlook to improve measurably before late 2009.

Monday numbers from the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation show the Silver State’s jobless rate hit 9.1 percent in December, up from 5.2 percent in December 2007. State unemployment also posted a big month-over-month gain, rising 1 percentage point from November’s 8.1 percent.

Clark County’s unemployment matched the state’s, at 9.1 percent. That’s up from 7.9 percent in November and 5.6 percent a year earlier. The nation’s unemployment rate rests at 7.2 percent.

Nevada’s average unemployment rate, calculated through November, is 6.5 percent, the eighth-highest jobless level in the nation. Michigan, at 8.1 percent, posted the highest annual average job loss.

Bill Anderson, an economist with the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, called the jump between November and December an unusually large change.

"It reflects the rapid deterioration in the economy that started unfolding last fall," Anderson said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., both released statements Monday saying that the latest unemployment numbers underline the importance of congressional action on an economic stimulus package.

"We have to act decisively now to change this. Nevada’s urgent need for an economic recovery package could not be any clearer," Reid said. "The package we are working in Congress to pass will bring jobs to Nevada as soon as possible. We must set aside the differences we have to bring real help to American families immediately, and that’s what I’m doing in the Senate right now."

Berkley, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the committee’s proposed stimulus package includes several provisions that would quickly help unemployed Nevadans. Among other measures, the bill would increase unemployment benefits $25 a week through 2009, provide a 12-month 65 percent subsidy for health-insurance continuation premiums for laid-off workers and their families and allow states to offer Medicaid coverage to the unemployed.

Blame a triple play of economic woes for the economy’s current strike-out.

Top among the culprits, said Anderson, is the housing market, with its high inventory of unsold existing homes and its falling median prices. Throw in stalled credit markets, which hamper business growth, and weak consumer spending, and voilá: Unemployment levels chase 25-year highs. Roughly 128,000 Nevadans were hunting for work in December, and first-time unemployment claims broke 36,000 — the highest monthly total on record.

Construction continued to lead the job-loss pack in December. Builders slashed 19,400 jobs statewide and 11,300 positions locally. The leisure sector shed 6,900 jobs statewide and 3,000 jobs in Clark County.

Experts said the economic climate probably won’t thaw out in the near future.

"The latest figures reflect fundamentals in the market as they exist today, and the expectation is that conditions could continue to erode over the next couple of quarters," said Brian Gordon, a principal in local research firm Applied Analysis.

Fallout from the sluggish holiday retail season, combined with high-profile failures among national retailers including Mervyns, Linens-N-Things and Circuit City, won’t show up in jobless data until statistics from early 2009 come out, Gordon noted.

He added that he wouldn’t be surprised to see Nevada’s jobless rate surpass 10 percent in 2009. Its record unemployment rate is 10.7 percent, set in December 1982.

Anderson said he anticipates the economy will stabilize in late 2009, with job loss diminishing perhaps later this year. But he said he doesn’t expect the state to post year-over-year job growth before late 2010 or early 2011.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.

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